The Dilemma of Desire

Decorative Coffee

I have been thinking about trading in my old iphone 4 for a shiny new iphone 6. Some days when I sit staring at my phone, waiting for my email, or a news article, or a Facebook page to appear on the screen of my old phone, I imagine the ease a new phone might bring to my life. Emails arrive promptly; photos appear sharp and clear, and my searches materialize without glitches.

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra tells us that most human beings suffer from afflictions – called klesas – that cause distress and suffering. You may be surprised to know that the main affliction, called avidya, is misapprehension, lack of understanding, or ignorance: we think we know something and we don’t, or we think we don’t know something and we do. This avidya manifests in our attitudes, relationships, and actions causing problems.

One of avidya‘s “children” is raga, which is best translated as a burning desire, attraction, or attachment to something. We have experienced a pleasant situation, and we want to repeat it again, and again, and again. In its most intense manifestation, raga is addiction.

Even today as I sat down to write, I kept thinking about making myself a nice cup of coffee with some foamy milk and stevia. For me, this kind of coffee has pleasant associations beyond the drink – things like sitting at a table under a palm tree outside a coffee shop on a sunny day in Los Angeles talking with my daughter, or sitting with my husband at Wegman’s enjoying a late afternoon coffee and muffin, or coming to my desk with my coffee and writing without hesitation something important for me to express.

Too much coffee has a down side for me, as well, causing heartburn and stomach discomfort, and, if caffeinated, leaving me feeling a little jittery and unable to focus. To think that the cup of coffee will leave me with only the pleasant feelings I have experienced in the past is avidya.

Patanjali calls avidya a confusion, mistaking “the ephemeral for the eternal, the impure for the pure, suffering for pleasure, the trivial for the essential” (YS II.5 as translated by Frans Moors in Liberating Isolation). This confusion is a source of suffering.

There is nothing wrong with buying an iphone 6 or having a cup of coffee with foamy milk. Suffering occurs when we obsess about having the phone or coffee, as if our ability to feel contentment depended upon having one or both. Or, on the other hand, we are so caught up by desire that we fail to see or acknowledge the possible negative effects the acquisition might bring.

To avoid the suffering that arises when raga becomes active requires noticing when the desire or attachments begin to appear. Then we can come to our yoga mat and practice, creating space so we have some distance or detachment from the object of our desire. That space can allow us to reflect on possible causes for the obsession, such as poor diet, lack of rest, or stress, as well as possible consequences. With an appropriate yoga practice we have the tools we need to come back to balance.

This week just begin to notice if raga may be coming up in your life.
 

A Question of Balance

A Question of Balance

Garden

The other morning, as the heat and humidity rose, I puzzled over the best place to plant my dill, tarragon, rosemary, cilantro, marigolds and zinnias. Our garden is in a bit of disorder, with garlic still maturing to harvest, lusciously overgrown rhubarb, large tufts of catmint, peppermint, lilies, sundrops, and a couple of tomatoes.

Sweat dripped from my face as I stepped one leg over the two-foot fence guarding our plantings. In my arms were plants, a trowel, and a digger. My focus was on where I would plant everything, and I was getting tired. Looking back, I can see that this was a set up for trouble. Not paying attention as I lifted the other leg over the fence, I was thrown off balance as my pant leg caught on the fence, throwing me to one side where I nearly fell on an overgrown thyme plant.
I was lucky. I was able to recover my balance rather than falling, but it reminded me how vulnerable we become when our attention wanders.

But losing one’s balance can occur in realms beyond a physical fall. Some of you may have heard me speak of the challenges I face when travelling, especially when I am away several weeks. The physical environment is different from where I live. The food and water I consume is new. My sleep and activities change, and I often feel on sensory overload. I may have enjoyed the time away, but I feel the imbalance in different parts of my system when I return home.

It takes time and patience to return to balance. A friend told me that rebalancing when we come home from a trip takes the same number of days as we were away. From my own experience I believe it.

Many students come to yoga class and tell me they need to improve their balance, meaning physical balance. Yoga talks about a model of the human system called the pancamaya model. This model describes five aspects of the human system: the physical, the energetic, the mental, the personality, and the emotional. They are all interrelated, meaning that an imbalance in any one aspect affects the others.

My fatigue and inattention in my garden the other morning were definitely aggravated by the heat and humidity. But I also have to remember that I am still recovering my balance from three and a half weeks of travel.

I share this with you with the hope you will start observing yourself. What throws you “off balance,” what can you do to reduce the effects, and what do you need to bring you back to balance.

EXPLORING BALANCE

8 week series focusing on balance in body, breath, and mind
Discovery Yoga: Wednesdays, June 17 – August 5, 5:45 – 7:15 pm
Yoga 4 Wise Women: Fridays, June 12 – August 7, 9:00 – 10:30 am
(no class July 10)
TMC, wellness through movement, 2134 N. 2nd, Harrisburg.
For more information, contact me:
eterryyoga@gmail.com or 717-645-0067

 

How Often Do You Experience Joy?

Blue Horses poetry bookThis question has lingered in my mind since it was asked on a form I was filling out for my first reflexology session with my friend and reflexologist Lori Sweet. The question stopped me. I had no idea how to answer it. And, I began to ask myself “what is joy for me?”

Yoga teaches that joy – ananda – resides in the subtlest aspect of our being. It is there for all of us, yet may seem elusive, even mysterious.

After reflecting on this question, I can best describe the feeling of joy to be a profound opening of myself to all that is around me: it is a connection and a deep gratitude. It may be brief or linger, a glow in the sky of my being after the sun slips below the horizon.

Yoga teachings tell us we have a choice whether to move toward joy or away from joy. We have to reflect on what brings us “non-joy” and say “no” to that. The great gift of yoga is a quieting of the mind, which helps us to discern those things that bring us joy and those bringing us “non-joy.”

This morning after returning from the veterinarian with my most lovable fluffy 14-year-old kitty, Bagheera, I sat in the chair in the living room with a cup of coffee. Looking out the window to the snow clinging to the sycamore, I could feel myself leaning into a space of inertia. Bagheera was going to OK, but I was slipping into malaise with the day.

I don’t think I was conscious of making a choice, but I did pick up a book of poetry my husband had given me for Christmas. The poet was Mary Oliver. I read poem after poem until I reached “Franz Marc:s Blue Horses,” in which the poet imagines herself stepping into the painting “Blue Horses.” The poet reflected on the painter who “died a young man, shrapnel in his brain,” but also on the beauty of the blue horses in the painting and her gratitude.

I do not know how to thank you, Franz Marc.
Maybe our world will grow kinder eventually.
Maybe the desire to make something beautiful
is the piece of God that is inside each of us.”

I read the poem again and again, and then found myself holding the book close to my heart. It broke me open to something beyond the living room and the snow and the sycamore. I realize now I had made a choice to move toward joy. And that has made all the difference in my day.

So what about you?
How does joy feel to you?
What are you going to connect to that will bring you joy?

 

Enough

Sunset at the beach

I don’t know what I expected when I went to “Ted Talks” on the web to listen to Brene Brown talk about vulnerability. All I know is my friend told me, “you have to watch this.”

The thirty minute talk set off a flurry of reflections for me. But what has stayed with me, returning again and again in my thoughts, came in the final moments when she spoke of how to practice “whole-hearted vulnerability:” love with our whole hearts; practice joy and gratitude; believe we are enough. It was the last element that has been the biggest stumbling block for me, and for so many other women I know.

Friday was a journey. We rose at 5:15 am. I said good-bye to each of my dear kitties, and then we drove to Baltimore to board a five plus hour flight to Los Angeles and arrive in what seemed like chaos in the Los Angeles airport. Our reward was seeing our daughter and family and being with our oldest grandson to celebrate his college graduation. But the preparation for leaving during the previous five days had left me feeling as if I had gone beyond “enough.” I had been trying to take care of things in all areas of my life before leaving town, as if all had to be in order so I could go. I was not conscious of my thinking until I looked back. When I did, I realized I was operating with the belief that by completing all these tasks, I would have done enough. I would be enough.

I have been in the “doing enough to be enough” place many times. We live in a culture that reinforces this belief constantly. After all, our economy is about production and consumption and progress; we receive these messages all the time, in media, from other people, from our teachers. It is as if we are enculturated into the belief that there is always more to do, to accomplish, to buy, and to be. If we come to a place where we accept ourselves as we are and believe what we do is enough, we usually notice we are swimming against the current.

But we pay a price for trying to be enough by doing more. When I feel that way, my heart, not to mention my mind, feels depleted, and I have little emotional energy or ability to be present or patient. Doing too much in order to feel I am enough robs me of what is most important, my connection to those dear to me and to myself.

The ability to observe our reactions and behavior is called svadhyaya in Sanskrit. This is one of the three elements of kriya yoga, the yoga of action, as described by Patanjali in Yoga Sutra 2.1. Svadhyaya offers us the possibility of seeing how we create suffering in our own lives, things like believing we are not enough. This sutra tells us to develop a practice to deal with behaviors or attitudes causing problems. The practice, called tapas, requires effort and continued self-observation to make sure it is reducing the negative effects. The last element of kriya yoga is isvara pranidhana, requiring an acknowledgement that there is a power greater than ourselves to whom we must turn over the results of our actions.

Our tapas could be a mantra we include in a meditation each day. One student in my Wise Women class told of a therapist who had given her a mantra that could be used: “I am enough. I do enough. What I do, I do well.” The svadhyaya becomes our continued self-observation. Since our old way of thinking has become a habit, at some point we face resistance. The old pattern will be pushing us to do more so we can feel we are enough, yet our practice will be linking us to a new message, one that assures us we are enough as we are. Inevitably this resistance creates heat, the heat of tapas, as we move to create the new positive pattern, and so effort over time is required to transform the old pattern. To maintain the effort required we need humility and faith that something positive will come to fruition, over time, through our efforts – isvara pranidhana.

There is a price we pay for staying in our old patterns, which is continued suffering. And, there is a price we pay when we engage in making change, which is effort. But there is a pay off eventually as we begin to move from “not enough”‘ to a place of believing we are enough. When we live in the place of believing we are enough, we are kinder and gentler to ourselves and others. We feel connection in our relationships, and we are able to touch joy and peace within ourselves. The universe is full, the Veda-s tell us. And indeed it is when all is enough.

 

Slowing Down

Desert scene

Have you ever found yourself receiving the same message again and again? For example, you read an entry in a daily meditation book that so clearly speaks to you that you are startled. Then you lunch with a friend who tells you how she just became aware she needed to change something in her life, and it is exactly the issue the meditation book entry was speaking to. A few days later, you hear the same message in a lecture you attend.

That’s exactly what has happened to me. Recently I heard a woman from Rotary International speak about lessons she learned from her stay in Haiti, helping to install water filters in the homes of Haitians. She described the life of the people in the valley where she worked, how they spent most of their time interacting with neighbors. Their lives, being quite simple, although much more physically demanding than those of most Americans, allowed space for relationships. What the speaker took away was the importance of slowing down and paying attention to people and relationships.

The following day I was Skyping with my Vedic Chant teacher, going over two chants and part of a third I was working on. As we concluded the session, she told me, “You need to slow down. You need to pay attention and listen to yourself.”

As I reflected on my teacher’s feedback, I realized that “slowing down,” “paying attention,” and “listening” were a part of a bigger message I needed to hear.

Later, when I heard Pastor Tom Sweet say: “If you want to go deep, you have to go slow,” and repeat that in a newsletter he sent out later in the week, I knew he was sharing the bigger message.

In his commentary on the Yoga Sutra I.2, where the state of yoga is defined, Bernard Bouanchaud tells us: “Yoga consists of keeping the mind quiet and wakeful so that one is totally present to what one is doing. Thoughts no longer rush forth of themselves in all directions…” To achieve the state of yoga requires going deep, and going deep requires going slowly.

During the holiday season, when messages abound about the many things to do and remember, my thoughts can flash by, dispersing my attention and focus. As I feel stressed by the perceived pressure to “get everything done,” my distraction and thoughts speed up.

We are fortunate to have many practices in yoga that help to quiet the mind and improve our ability to focus our attention in the here and now. The practices are tools to slow us down, but also the vehicles to go deeper. Often the first place we start is doing movement coordinated with the breath in yoga postures. But the eight limbs of yoga suggest many ways to practice paying attention and slowing down: we can observe how we practice the five recommended ethical principles (yama) in our relationships with others; we can observe how we practice the five recommended attitudes (niyama) toward ourselves; we can practice breathing techniques (pranayama) to bring a state of balance to the mind; we can practice withdrawing our senses (pratyahara) from focusing on the world around us in favor of our internal universe; we can regularly practice meditation with a particular focus on an object or concept that helps to support us in our lives (dharana, dhyana, samadhi).

Yoga asks us to go deep, to know ourselves, to make changes so we can live without suffering, with more peace. By going slowly enough to go deeply, we have the possibility of transformation. And, for that message, I am grateful.

 

Exploring an Inner Radiance

Bare tree

Earlier this week, before the weather turned chilly, I took a rest from cleaning up weeds and detritus around the two crepe myrtle by our driveway. Their fushia flowers had brought us great pleasure during the summer, but what remained now, in November, was just browning and falling leaves.

Leaning my arms on the trunk of the car, I looked toward the creek, to the old sycamore whose boney branches rose above the rooftops, glowing in a slant of sunlight. But my gaze was stolen from the tree by the motion of hawks. Two hawks circled in similar flight paths, at different heights, riding the thermals as they flapped and coasted, flapped and coasted. Banking to maintain their circle the angle of their bodies shifted, and sunlight flashed across their creamy white bellies.

Sycamores, hawks, light.

“Light originates in the center of the heart,” explains Bernard Bouanchaud in his commentary on yoga sutra I.36. Meditating on that light, which is believed to be the source of the divine within, brings a sense of serenity.

This concept is very precious to me, personally. At a time when I was struggling with a lack of confidence and a feeling of distress, my yoga teacher said to me, “Your light is so bright. You just cannot see it.” Her words were a gift, something I return to for solace and stability.

We all experience times when we feel as if we are in a dark space. That is why I offer this image of the light in the heart to my students as focus in class from time to time. When we are caught in a dark space in our thinking, we can visualize the image of the light within. As flicking a switch in a dark room dissipates the darkness that had been there, linking to the image of a light in the heart can help dissipate the darkness of our thoughts.

The ancient Vedas offer a beautiful image that can help us explore this mystery of the light in the heart.

In the body is the heart,
In the heart is a lotus,
In the lotus is a light,
This light is the source of inner peace…”

According to Bouanchaud’s commentary, meditating on the luminous quality of the heart offers us the possibility of more than a sense of peace and stability, as wonderful as that is. This serenity can open a door connecting us to “the life that animates all beings and everything in nature” and encouraging “a deep relationship with it.”

As I watched the light flash on the bellies of the circling hawks and gleam on the white skin of the sycamore, I was reminded of the light living not only within me, but within all people, all beings. The promise of peace and connection is there for all of us, if only we notice.

 

Labyrinth

Elizabeth at labyrinth

Last Sunday my daughter and I brunched at the Chocolate Maven where we enjoyed a quiche of green chilies and the best mochas I have ever had. I swear Santa Fe must be the only place on earth where you can find green chilie quiche. And, the pleasure in eating it was only enhanced by having had three days with my daughter.

Monday morning when we had to say good-bye so she could return to Los Angeles and her many responsibilities of children, husband, and work, my whole body felt the loss of the intimacy of our weekend. In the space between her departure and the arrival of my husband, I walked.

Often, when feeling troubled or sad, I want to feel close to the earth. On this day, in Santa Fe, I wanted to take in the Sangre de Cristo mountains whose peaks were whitened by Sunday’s storm, the deep blue of the cloudless sky, the brilliant yellow of a tree flanking the white stone of the New Mexico Veterans’ Memorial. But I did have a destination in mind.

Walking San Francisco Street, I passed homeless people, tourists, and just ordinary folks. Ahead lay my destination – Saint Francis Cathedral, with the Sangre de Cristo mountains as its backdrop. I climbed the stairs as visitors milled and photographed the church and one another. Rather than entering, I turned to the left and crossed the portico to the labyrinth. The only person nearby was a man reading as he sat on a nearby bench.
Here it was quiet.

Only the day before, Katherine and I had walked the labyrinth on Museum Hill. And, only a week earlier, Jim, my friend Leslie, and I had walked the labyrinth at the Benedictine Grange near Redding, Connecticut.

I had explained to Katherine my sense of the labyrinth, and how you had to place your attention on each step you took, how the exactitude of the narrow path required attention as it led closer to the center, and then wound away. Sometimes it was only a few steps until the path curved back in the direction from which you had come, while other times you were lead with many steps before the path curved, and you had to slow just to stay on the path.

A plaque beside the labyrinth explained that they had been used since at least 2000 BC and were found everywhere in the world. In medieval times labyrinths were built into the floor of churches where pilgrims came to walk them. The one at Saint Francis in Santa Fe was built on the pattern of the labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral in France.

I had told Katherine that I felt walking the labyrinth was like life. It reminded us that sometimes things went smoothly, then, suddenly there would be twists. Sometimes twist after twist required slowing and quick adjustments. Sometimes we approached the center, which for me is a closeness to a Higher Source, and we find joy. Other times our path changes suddenly and we may feel alone, abandoned.

Something felt soothing and healing on the morning I walked the labyrinth at Saint Francis. It did remind me of the twists in life we all face. But, in the space of time in which I walked the labyrinth, I moved from sadness to gratitude. I realized that in feeling such a connection with my daughter, I had reached a center – at least for a time.